Category — consumer warfare
As someone who has been involved in the protests in Madison for the past six days, I find the news media coverage of the momentous events in this town to in no way portray the reality of what is going on here. In their attempts to constantly be balanced, the news media seem to have lost all ability to be accurate.
February 21, 2011 Comments Off
Information is power.
"Wow, really?" a family member said recently, in response to the news that Afghanistan was now the longest-running war in American history. "That's funny…you just don't hear that much about Afghanistan."
No. No, you don't — and furthermore, it was "hearing about" Vietnam that directly contributed to ending that war. People started protesting because journalists started (disobeying the government and) bringing back pictures of the atrocities being committed there, which were then shown on the national news. The protests eventually sapped all political will to keep the war going. (Financial damage is key: Wars make money, tons of money for the right people. But protests cost it — in damage, cops, courts, lost work, boycotts, and political donations. You can almost see, if you read up on things that protesting has worked for, when the money-balance tipped.)
There aren't many American protests of Afghanistan, especially compared to Vietnam, and it's not, I hope everyone is smart enough to realize, because this is the world's first miraculously atrocity-free war. It's because American journalists have been pretty thoroughly cowed this time. The shocking news, the graphic pictures, may make a few blogs and Wikileaks, but the mainstream news sticks with a) Lady Gaga and b) discrediting Wikileaks, pretty much exclusively.
I remember when I realized for the first time that American media was censored: It was when I read a speech by John Paul II, the then-Pope of all Catholicdom, and in it he described very frankly why, according to Christian values, Capitalism the way America practices it is evil. This was on the Vatican's own website. I was confused, and did some searching — and yes, actually John Paul II had that opinion over most of his tenure, and he wasn't quiet about it. Jesus said "feed the poor", "heal the sick" and was pretty clearly against allowing wealth to coagulate into the top 1% of the population while everyone else struggled…hence, American capitalism flies in the face of Jesus' teachings, and the head of the Jesus-worship clan was not okay with it. (Other prominent Xtian scholars remain not-okay with it — one speaks on-camera in "Capitalism: A Love Story", for instance.)
Number of times I have ever heard the John Paul II's opinion of capitalism talked about on a major American media outlet: Zero. And the only possible way that could be true is that Americans are being flat-out censored. So ever since then, I've known it, and just kept that knowledge under my hat with a whole bottle of salt for use whenever I'm around mainstream media.
I don't suspect I'll get much argument from most thinking people on this, so rather than hammer on the point, I'd like to offer a little salve: The Independent (a British news company) ran a brilliant article yesterday, describing "The Under-Appreciated Heroes of 2010". I highly recommend everyone read the article, but for now I'm going to do what blogs do best: Condense the pertinent information from the article into bits you have time for, even if you can't read the whole thing. It's amazing, even in snipped form.
Also, let's face it — something like this may be taken down eventually, or Americans may lose access to it. In those cases (and they happen — and recent changes to government powers and oversight of the Internet will make them happen more), it's important to have "backup data". I'm happy to devote some virtual-estate to this.
So here you are — see if you've heard the juice on these heroes (an especially interesting exercise if you're not in the U.S.) and enjoy having your mind blown at least once, I promise. And Viva la fuck censorship!! ;)
(Snips under the cut)
December 25, 2010 3 Comments
I know it's Donald Rumsfeld and yes, I would slap him if I ever met him…but he actually didn't do a bad job stating the epistemological truth, there. There are knowns; known unknowns; and importantly, unknown unknowns. Socrates (or his fans) would have said that the more you're aware of the probable existence of unknown unknowns, the more clearly you can edge the map — marking not just the islands you know you haven't been to, but also the places your map doesn't even attempt to cover — the wiser you are.
Mind you, I don't think Rummy had a fucking clue what he meant when he said that. I think serious pondering of that idea for about ten minutes has to result in an unwillingness to conduct a fucking war, for one thing. The sheer number of unknown unknowns involved, the unbelievable likelihood of screwing yourself in the long run, you'd think would paralyze any red-button-pusher with half a working synapse.
But I digress. Hell, I begin by digressing — is there some kind of extra credit for that?
It's Monday morning. This past weekend was full of ups and downs…I'll call it "brilliant" overall, with the caveat that brilliant things are blinding, can hurt, can make you walk into a wall when they shut off.
Sleep-wise, I slept 8 hours Thanksgiving night, after getting no naps that day. Woke up feeling sore and sluggish; ew. After that, I managed to get two naps on Friday and Sunday, and sleep 4.5 hours at night — going to bed at 11:30, and waking up at 4am feeling fine. On Saturday I only got one nap, and I tried to sleep 4.5 hours but slept six instead (my body was Not Playing Games about getting the rest it needed, in the face of all the running around and emotional upheaval).
Still, it wasn't anywhere near the failure I had feared…my schedule survived, and I have every reason to expect that I can pick this week up like nothin', get right back to it. Woot.
I did get way too much food and not enough exercise, but such are holidays I suppose…it occurs to me that humanity has been doing the feasting-in-the-winter thing for hundreds upon hundreds of generations by now, and it's entirely likely that it's just not that bad for us anymore. ;)
This morning, I decided to pursue a little education with my three pre-work hours…I watched "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train", a documentary of Howard Zinn — which I really enjoyed; I've read some of Zinn's work but after learning more about him, I'll totally read more: awesome guy! Then I followed it up with "Capitalism: A Love Story" — I know that Moore's movies express a biased point of view, but I also know that it's the opposite bias of the one I hear 90% of the time in other media (taking this opportunity to metaphorically slap anyone who claims that mainstream media equals a lack of bias) — which I'm not sure I'll be able to watch all of, but it's definitely food for thought. I do think it's funny that Moore is seen as so slaveringly radical, when everything I've ever seen of his is a pretty basic rallying cry for more democracy. It's not PhD-level, but then again neither is anything I've seen from the opposing view. And it's not radical…radical is saying, in all seriousness, that it might be completely fair to get some fucking guns and tell the banks that if they want these houses, they can come take them the old fashioned way.
I still have nightmares about foreclosures in Michigan.
And I think I have actual Survivor's Guilt; I can't look that way without shuddering, without the organic food going sawdust in my mouth. I feel like I left my family in a war-zone, even if I left to get help. It's slowly occurring to me that it's not an accident that I stopped listening to NPR, have been avoiding news almost completely, and avert my eyes from for-sale signs as if they burn. It's stupid on a level, but on another level, it ought to say something that this economic climate is actually bad enough to cause PTSD.
And this is why documentaries before 7am are not always a good idea. ;)
November 29, 2010 1 Comment
October 15, 2010 2 Comments
A federal judge in Detroit, in a broad ruling upholding Congress’s power to require all Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, decided Thursday that the mandate is necessary to prevent the “extinction” of the nation’s entire health care insurance market. U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh said the requirement was well within Congress’s power to regulate commerce among the states. The decision is the first by a federal court to rule directly on the constitutionality of the buy-or-be-penalized provision of the sweeping new health care reform law. [....]
The ruling came in the case of Thomas More Law Center, et al., v. Obama, et al. (District Court docket 10-11156) in the Eastern District of Michigan. That lawsuit is one of a lengthy list of court challenges across the Nation to several parts of the new health care law. But the provision requiring everyone to have a health insurance policy by the year 2014 was clearly the most visible part of the package for most Americans, and it has been subjected to the most energetic challenge. The key to most of the challenges is the argument that refusing to buy health insurance is not activity, but inactivity, and Congress has never had the power to order people to engage in economic activity when they choose not to do so.
But Judge Steeh refused to accept that view of what the insurance mandate is. “Far from ‘inactivity,’” the judge wrote, “by choosing to forgo insurance [the challengers] are making an economic decision to try to pay for health care services later, out of pocket, rather than now through the purchase of insurance, collectively shifting billions of dollars, $43 billion in 2008, onto other market participants.”
IMPORTANTLY YET UNSAID (the Court is too damn polite sometimes): The "Thomas More Law Center" is a disgusting racket openly dedicated to destroying the separation of church and state. Besides conducting lawsuits (sometimes over heinously frivolous and/or hateful things), the Center serves as a school for lawyers who want to learn specifically how to use legal precedent as a weapon to enforce Christian values by trying the right cases in the right way to warp the Constitution into a supporter of their chosen religion.
Not much has made me feel great about Detroit lately, but I'm damn proud that it could be one of the places where a level-headed judge put his boot on the face of Matt Staver and his fellow bigoted zealot lunatics. Yaaaaay, D-town!
(For the record, although I wouldn't care much *what* the case was as long as the Thomas More Center lost it, I think the judge's argument is sound in this — though I think that for the situation to be truly fair, there should be a mandate that free market controls (note the phrase) be in place to guarantee that people aren't being forced to buy from only certain companies, or to pay unfair prices. It's not cool that people can be forced to buy insurance (car, health, whatever) in markets that are obviously poisoned by bad business practices and storebought politicians. However, it isn't this judge's fault that that piece is missing; he made a sound decision with what he had.)
October 12, 2010 Comments Off
When I started martial arts a few years ago, I wasn't in bad shape. I was nearing thirty, had had a kid, never really paid much attention to my diet; but I've always been stronger than average and "bouncy"; I burn a lot of calories just twitching and running around generally. So compared to many (especially many Midwestern American) women, I was pretty lean, with slightly-better-than-average strength and muscle-tone.
Fast forward through a whole bunch of taiji, a serious dose of shorin ryu and a good sprinkling of kungfu, plus some basic mandatory pushups-and-situps stuff. Now I'm even slightly more lean, quite a bit stronger (especially in the core-muscle area), and if I really work at it, I can show you actual muscles, like, with lines and stuff.
Naturally this situation has been a tinderbox all along. Wanting to be stronger can only be a distant glow for so long; eventually the fuse catches and before you know it you're shopping for weights and getting angry that you don't have room for a squat-cage. Oh yes! The geek-fire hath spread again. ;)
I'm up to almost 50 pushups and 130 crunches (still doing the 100 pushups / 200 situps challenge from before; it works! –Or it's working so far, anyway!); and yeah that's nice, but come on, it's beginner stuff. Time to get some barbells and really have fun!
Only…getting them is not fun. Getting them, so far, has meant being asked to "talk to my husband about it" twice, and directed to the Pink Hand-Weights section whenever I'm stupid enough to look in a store. And did you know that weightlifting equipment — even professional Olympic-grade stuff — has a crippled female version? Seriously, the bars are 2" shorter and often lighter. WHY?? I bet they don't suggest the "women's bar" for short men, either, because it's pretty obviously not about size — I have yet to see a single "for people under 5'5"" or something on any of it–not that that would make much sense either, since, you know, it's a BAR and you can just slide the weights in farther if it's really an issue — no, it's divided by GENDER, and to the point where women competing professionally in weightlifting are forced to use the crippled equipment, while men never are. So a six-foot woman should be using wussier equipment than a five-foot guy. BECAUSE OF THE WHY? Do we have to go in the back door and use a separate drinking-fountain too?! (Oh wait..sometimes, yes we do).
So anyway — not fun, that and the general amount of static even the subject of pursuing strength as a goal generates in the population at large…apparently everyone and their mother (as well as my mother) feels they have not just the right, but the obligation, to inform me that I'd better be careful or I'll be ugly (because strong men are attractive and strong women are icky) / have no breasts (as opposed to what? Have you looked at mine, lol) / scare people (is bad why? Scary men are envied, and they arguably can't even make as good a use of it as a woman can, defense being a particular issue of ours) / go blind or piss off Jesus or whatever.
Oh, also, once I get some (more? visibler?) muscles I am apparently going to bleach my hair and prance around in bikinis all the time and suddenly become incapable of marital fidelity. Geez, who knew that being strong also turned one into a "stupid slut"! (Or a lesbian, which in popular parlance seems to be a frigid subspecies thereof.)
I can't imagine how that narrative got started. ::facepalm::
For various reasons, this is looking like a Lost Year for me, coming up; a year of biding and slowly plodding towards goals I had hoped to reach this summer, but which "the triumph of inferior influences", as the I Ching puts it, has stalled for a while. Which doesn't make it seem like a bad year to focus on self-improvement, specifically strength of various sorts, which will hopefully make me readier for the challenges when they do hit, after sitting around building up energy for a year.
Oh, and I seem to have found an awesome full-contact Wing Chun school right by my house. Think I'll go ahead and put the cream on that there cookie, and learn to brawl too, if I can eek out the time!
So that's my "new and exciting", or a chunk of it anyway. Feel free to share yours! Just don't tell me how I'm going to lose some measure of my "femininity" or something by working out, or I will come over there and put this Olympic Men's Size barbell right up your…ego. ;)
July 7, 2010 6 Comments
As citizens, we care (or at least have a responsibility to care) about whether our governments are doing well or badly. That responsibility is the flipside of our right to fix government organizations when we don't agree with what they're doing, or how.
We've been citizens for hundreds of years, so we're getting used to this process, to these rights and responsibilities, sorta. But we've only been consumers for a few decades, so it's understandably still catching on that, hey! That means we have a responsibility to know and care what companies are doing and how; and also a right to support the good ones and kill the bad ones!
A few for your consideration, then:
EZTakes.com is a movie-seller specializing in the "stuff you used to find only at the corner family video-store, before they went out of business", and they certainly do have a fascinating stock of odds, ends and weird stuff. Even better, though, they have a clean, simply-designed website without a lot of privacy-violating crap on it, and they refuse to DRM their files, so the movies you buy from them (at great prices; many are even free) are guaranteed to work with whatever hardware, etc. you want to use them with.
What *really* impressed me is their terms of service, which states, "we will not restrict your rights as a Consumer, including fair use…and if we ever try to, this statement takes precedence."
Now that's commitment — contractually limiting your future activities to ensure that you mean what you say.
What if Facebook had done that with their initial promise to "keep your personal information private"?
Speaking of terms of service, check out this doozy I ran into the other day:
Due to manufacturer policies, all packaged items with plastic clamshells, shrink wrap, special seals, or other types of packaging that sustains damage when opened are NON-RETURNABLE if the packaging has been OPENED or TAMPERED.
…Yes, that's right, this company (an online electronics seller called SuperBiiz) has a 30-day return policy, but it doesn't apply to anything that comes in packaging that you have to open. Er, which as far as I can tell, includes everything they sell.
Of course, it doesn't end there. There are a veritable plethora of companies engaging in bad practices now — practices that limit, undermine or destroy your rights as a consumer (fair use, first sale, and the right not to be gouged or price-fixed against); or damage or deteriorate your rights as a citizen (i.e. your 4th-amendment right not to be searched without cause, or your freedom to criticize them in public forums). There are also companies who openly do damage to our country or society, say by hiring workers overseas for sweatshop wages to avoid paying locals, or by allowing oil-spills and mining-accidents when it's cheaper than adhering to the regulations (and it is, believe me).
I don't have to say that there's no excuse for what these companies are doing. Capitalism and the free market is not an excuse; the marketplace has rules, like everything else, and breaking or bending them is cheating, and removes your right to earn a profit or to continue to do business.
The problem is that regulatory agencies aren't the best, or strongest, ways to enforce good behavior from companies: Consumers are.
And I DO have to say, I think, that there's no excuse for consumers who shirk their responsibility to be knowledgeable and shop carefully — no more than there's an excuse for citizens who ignore what their government does, don't vote, or carelessly pollute their environment. In both cases, citizens and consumers, we have rights, and the responsibility to be aware of and protect them.
Don't worry, it's not that hard.
I haven't set foot in a Wal-Mart in fifteen years and look! I'm still alive!
(Yes, that was snarky. But seriously, sometimes I feel like I have to say that to my fellow Michiganders, who seem to think that something like "not shopping at Wal-Mart" is just a huge hardship; like it's way too much to ask them to not save $0.03 on toilet-paper this week so that manufacturing can stay in the U.S. a little and people can stop being underpaid and discriminated against. CRY ME A RIVER, yo. You have a bumper-sticker that says 'out of a job yet? keep buying foreign!' but you claim it only applies to cars? PUH-LEEZE. ;)
April 30, 2010 7 Comments
…I just wanted to put up those articles (from The Consumerist, all relatively recent), and weigh in with my Hi-I-Was-A-Foreclosure-Prevention-Counselor-In-Recession-Central opinion…mostly because I would feel really bad if I left the field (which I have) without ever saying it really, really loudly:
THE MAJORITY OF FORECLOSURES COULD HAVE BEEN EASILY PREVENTED BY THE BANKS MAKING EVEN A TINY AMOUNT OF EFFORT TO STOP THEM.
THAT EFFORT IS NOT THERE. FROM ANY OF THE BIG, BAILED-OUT BANKS. STORIES LIKE THE ONES ABOVE ARE THE NORM, AND LAZY OR SHADY HOMEOWNERS WALKING AWAY IS ALMOST 100% A BANK-CREATED FICTION. (Please don't be surprised that huge mega-banks can influence the media in this country. I will have to punch you.)
DO YOUR PART and STOP HELPING TO SPREAD THE LIES. THE BANKS CAUSED THIS PROBLEM BY ALLOWING THEIR OWN PROFESSIONAL REPRESENTATIVES TO SELL UNSUSTAINABLE LOANS, AND THEY ARE PERPETUATING IT BY FAILING TO TAKE EVEN THE MOST BASIC STEPS TO TRY AND HELP HONEST FAMILIES WHO WANT TO PAY (often who want to pay on exorbitant terms that they really should walk away from) MAKE REASONABLE MODIFICATIONS TO THEIR LOANS.
I saw it; hundreds of times. I met maybe five–maybe?–actually stupid homeowners, and one shady jerk, in three years of counseling; but I lost track of the number of times I personally witnessed:
- banks telling people they needed to miss payments before they could receive help; then foreclosing once the payments were missed;
- banks setting deadlines and then forcing people to miss them, and then foreclosing;
- banks "losing" paperwork over and over again, and refusing to extend deadlines because of it;
- banks offering "help" in the form of a modification that raised the homeowner's payments, often also making their loan terms worse (and how many sad, sad times homeowners accepted that modification, assuming that since they'd asked for help, they'd get it, and not wanting to be "rude" by reading the fine print and demanding a better deal) — and then foreclosing if the modification isn't accepted, or if it is and the new, higher payments can't be made.
I'm counting on you, Internet. Don't let this whole foreclosure mess go down in history as a problem with consumers: That was NEVER true.
(Bonus Happy Link: Americans for Fairness in Lending)
February 4, 2010 2 Comments
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, "It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be."
It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" There will also be an American flag no larger than a child's hand–glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.
–monograph by Howard W. Campbell, Jr., discussing the behavior of American prisoners in German camps in WWII.*
*as quoted in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five or, The Childrens' Crusade which if you haven't read, you really really oughtta. It's amazing. ;)
January 2, 2010 Comments Off
I like the "I Will Teach You To Be Rich" blog, for several reasons:
- It defines "rich" as the balance between financial independence and lifestyle freedom that works for you
- It's competently and clearly written, and well-organized
- It focuses on non-sensationalist tips that really work, changing things you can actually control, making decisions that will improve your whole life (not just your pocketbook), and being conscious of your problems and "Knowing Thyself" as essential steps towards forging financial solutions.
And if you were only ever going to read one post on finance, or on that blog, I would probably recommend the "7 Lies We Tell Ourselves" one. Not only does it list seven fantastic "Know Thyself" jumping-off points, but by reading them in in this format, you should learn what it is that you need to focus on about finances, whether it's planning or investing or working on behavioral fixes. That method — to pin down what your individual weakness is, and address it realistically — is the fastest way *I* can think of to effect good change.
I have one complaint about the article, however: In Tip #1, they discuss negotiating for a salary.
Negotiating a salary is a good idea, and it's a good idea to learn how exactly to do it, because it can make you a lot of money without changing anything else about what you're doing, and how to do it is not really obvious to most people. So not only am I glad Ramit mentions it in this article; I think his including a video with detailed instructions for negotiating a salary is a great lagniappe.
However, as a former financial counselor and a frugal person, I've seen videos and other instructions of this type quite often, and this one makes one of the common mistakes that makes me go yyyrrrrrggggggghhhhAAAAAAAAAYOUIDIOTS! and foam rabidly all over my keyboard. (It's not pretty.)
The woman in the video (and it is almost always a woman who says this, even when the material isn't explicitly aimed at women) just has to point out that women make less money than men, and that women are not very good negotiators ("by nature" is assumed even if not said) and often aren't shown how to do it…so obviously, you know, that leads to the completely logical conclusion that if women were better negotiators, we wouldn't have such a problem with wage disparity.
Of course, it's no accident that the woman in this video is younger than me, recently graduated from Stanford and got 60K/yr at her last, poorly-negotiated job. So if I, or someone else, were to say to her, "YOU'RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. LET'S TELL ALL THE WOMEN WHO WORK AT WAL-MART TO NEGOTIATE BETTER SALARIES, AND MAYBE WAL-MART WILL AGREE TO PAY THEM THE SAME AS MEN," I'm sure she would be genuinely shocked to ponder that, for the vast majority of women, being fresh out of Stanford and needing to pull better than 60K out of your next round of "recruiter" interviews is not, in fact, the main problem.
(Note: It may be that Ramit's audience for his blog is simply this group, of very-upper-middle-class rather-clueless young-ish people…but he doesn't explicitly narrow his advice to them, or say anything to that effect that I'm aware of. And for the most part, I think his advice is very good no matter where you are on the economic treadmill.)
I'm not saying that salary-negotiating advice would not be useful to lower-income women, not at all. But be serious — if most women in this country tried "negotiating" a salary at the kind of jobs they work (which are more often low-wage or crappy to begin with), they simply wouldn't get hired. It's actually been shown quite clearly that just demanding wage parity can get you fired.
Now, if MOST of the women in this country suddenly demanded parity, that would probably change something — I imagine we're too much of the workforce now, for society to tolerate a general strike. But we have families to feed, too; and one stereotype that is correct is that most women would rather suffer some indignity or lack than put their childrens' food supply in danger. So Wal-Mart can probably rest easy on that one.
The next woman in a hundred-dollar suit to tell me that "if we were better negotiators…" though, is getting foamed on. Ugh!
December 30, 2009 Comments Off